SEAT Ibiza Mk1
by David Finlay (22 December 2010)
To a Spaniard, any suggestion that this Ibiza could be described as the "first" SEAT would be treated with bewilderment. The Sociedad Española de Automóviles de Turismo has been building cars - mostly, in the early days, Fiats with different badges - since 1953, so at first sight there appears to be very little that's firstish about a model which came off the production line 34 years later.
The significance of this particular car is that it is one of the earliest to be sold in Britain by the then newly-formed SEAT UK. In fact, it was registered in 1987, and SEAT UK opened for business in 1985, but it's the oldest example that the company was able to find when it recently decided to add a classic car to its fleet. And since no changes were made to the car between '85 and '87 I think we can agree that that's good enough.
It's largely forgotten about now, but in those days much was made of the fact that Porsche had a hand in the design of the 1.2- and 1.5-litre petrol engines used in the Ibiza. (Similarly, Lada made no secret at about the same time of Porsche's involvement, in its role as an engineering consultancy, in the development of the Samara.) Ibizas with those engines were known as "System Porsche" models, but the car here isn't one of those, since it uses the alternative 903cc Fiat unit which produces - mercy me - a whopping 44bhp.
That engine is by no means the only Italian feature of this Spanish car. At heart it is basically a Fiat Strada (anyone remember those?), but more obviously, it also has an Italian shape, since the styling was farmed out to Giorgetto Giugiaro's Italdesign company. Two things strike me about this. First, although the Ibiza doesn't look outstanding, it's still quite pretty; and second, how refreshing it is to be able to see what's behind the car without having to get back out of it! What a shame that designers later forgot that glass is for looking through and started reducing its area to well below the sensible minimum.
I'm not so keen on the interior, though, by which I mean specifically the switchgear. During the development of the Ibiza, somebody employed by or working as a consultant for SEAT must have decided that steering column stalks had come to the end of their fashionable life, because the indicators, lights and wipers are all operated by switches of one kind or another. It wasn't the best idea that anyone in the motor industry has ever come up with, and in this respect the early Ibiza remains, fortunately, an oddity which no manufacturer of small hatchbacks - or indeed much else - has attempted to emulate.
A brief drive of the Ibiza makes it clear how far things have advanced in a quarter of a century. I scoffed earlier at the 44bhp power output, but it doesn't make the car quite as slow as you might expect because it's not burdened by heavy stuff that you would expect in a current model. Stuff that makes it safe, for example, like airbags and crash protection and whatnot.
On the other hand, the performance, such as it is, seems to be about as much as the tiny tyres and brakes can deal with. It takes a long time to accelerate to any kind of speed, but losing that speed is a time-consuming process too, and there are times when you really do want to lose it fairly briskly, since the Ibiza seems a bit hairy on the bends.
Then again, perhaps I'm being unfair on a car whose components are - in design if not in fact - really rather ancient. And it may be that I'm over-imaginative about the chances of spinning off into the pastoral scene simply because the results of doing so might easily include ending up with my forehead halfway down the steering column.
Disregarding all that, I enjoyed the Ibiza Mk1 more than I expected to, and I must admit that I did start to think of it as a sort of junior classic, or perhaps as a way of acquiring the classic car habit before moving on to stronger meat. It would not be an expensive process. SEAT UK paid somewhat over the odds for this example, which is in excellent condition, but it was still a three-figure sum, and you could probably pick up something nearly as good for £600 or so, or a bad one for practically nothing.
The Ibiza Mk1 was replaced in 1993 by the Mk2, which was based on the platform later used for the new Volkswagen Polo. Astonishingly, the Mk1 lives on in China as the Nanjing Yuejin Soyat (built by the company which bought MG), but I don't think I want to try one of those. As a throwback to the mid-1980s, the original Ibiza is interesting and fun. As a 21st-century proposition, not so much.